A Winning Design

Howard University News Service

Four middle school students from Aldine, Va., showed the world that one man’s trash can be another’s gold when their model of future city was chosen the best from among more than 120 entries.

With discarded plywood they hauled from city trash bins and dumps, Mercer Middle School students Daniel Aldana, 13, Sophia Folena, 14, Michael Nguyen, 13, and Thomas Martin, 13, built a model urban utopia.

January 31 was their moment to present their model at the National Engineers Week Future City competition at the University of the District of Columbia. It was a competition for seventh and eight graders from the competition’s Washington region.

The Future City competition is a national competition that allows students to be ‘hands on’ while using their science and mathematical skills and ideas about engineering to construct elements of a city including transportation, urban zoning, energy, and an economy.

Sponsors of the projects include Exxon Mobil, 3M, and IBM. The competition aims to strengthen problem solving, teamwork, computer skills, and research and presentation abilities.

The students from Mercer Middle School wanted to show that it is possible to construct a city from trash and waste materials. The competition was set up in the University of the District of Columbia’s south gym. Long wooden tables were set up in a rectangle with each school having their own table. Signs were posted along the tables representing the school, students, and name of their city.

The regional competition this year drew over 120 schools. Other school’s constructions consisted of materials made from Styrofoam, cardboard, and plywood as well.

This 2-foot by 3-foot Green City’s foundation was built of plywood. The city includes a stadium, water desalination plant, skyscrapers, and even an industrial zone. And the best part of it all is that 95 percent of the materials are recycled. The audience at the competition included class mates and supportive parents and other relatives.

Seven judges critiqued the projects for creativity degree of difficulty. The judges were engineers, environmental specialists, and architects.

The group of judges walked from table to table, listening to presentations and observing each model carefully. The essays were graded the day before the competition began. Handouts were provided to help the judges understand the structures.

The middle school students started their work in October with the first phase, designing the city. In the second phase they did the construction. Aldana, Folena, Martin, and Nguyen spent between 40-60 hours constructing the model.

The city replica could be no higher than 20″ in height, 25″ in width, and 50″ in length. The city also had to contain at least one moving part and all materials used in the model and other phases, could not exceed $100 in cost.

The Mercer team incorporated solar cubes to complete the requirements of having at least one moving object.. Solar cubes are wind and solar powered desalination components that produce gallons of fresh water daily.

The total package was due January 23 to be showcased the following weekend. More than 30,000 students in over 1,100 middle schools competed in the competition.

The students each had to write a 300 to 500 word essay with the theme being ‘How would you create a self sufficient system within the home which conserves, recycles, and reuses, existing water sources.’

They also had to do a verbal presentation of five to seven minutes in which the students discussed and explained their green city.

Tyler Medford, an environmental technician for the Department of Public Works, was effusive about the Future City competition, calling it a great event.

“It allows students to become aware of their environment while building a city with a team,” Medford said. “I wish we had these competitions when I was growing up.”

Mercer Middle School emerged the winner and is now headed to the national finals to face 36 other middle schools regional winners from across the nation.

The Future City finals will held in Washington February 18 – 20 at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill.

Daniel, Sophia, Thomas, and Nguyen have their eyes on winning the grand prize which comes with a trip to Huntsville, Ala. for Space Camp.

Evelyn Gonzales, a parent of a child at Mercer beamed with excitement at the school’s performance, even though her child did not compete.

“It’s amazing how they are incorporating real life situations into competitions that help children learn,” Gonzales said. “My child wasn’t in the competition, but I was excited to come and support the school. I learned a lot myself.”